PC MLAs reverse course as premier urges audit of employment agency

·3 min read
A shredding truck parked in front of the former Island Employment office as someone scrapes signs off the windows of the building on Dec. 22. (Brittany Wentzell/CBC News - image credit)
A shredding truck parked in front of the former Island Employment office as someone scrapes signs off the windows of the building on Dec. 22. (Brittany Wentzell/CBC News - image credit)

One day after government MLAs on a Nova Scotia Legislature committee rejected calls for a forensic audit into a Cape Breton employment agency, Premier Tim Houston says one should go ahead.

Island Employment shut its doors in November after the province ended its contract with it six months early. That followed a damning report by Nova Scotia ombudsman William Smith that found misuse or gross mismanagement of public funds.

At a meeting Wednesday of the legislature's public accounts committee, the NDP put forward a motion to ask Auditor General Kim Adair, who attended the meeting, to conduct the forensic audit. That motion was defeated by the PC majority on the committee.

But Houston said Thursday he has personally always wanted to complete a forensic audit. He said the PC caucus discussed the issue after the committee meeting and decided it was the right course of action.

"We want that forensic audit. We think that's appropriate and necessary," Houston said in an interview with CBC News. "More information is always better."

Following the caucus meeting, PC MLA Nolan Young, the vice-chair of the public accounts committee, wrote a letter to committee chair Kelly Regan saying the PC members had voted in "error." He asked that another vote be held so the party could support the motion.

Robert Short/CBC
Robert Short/CBC

PC connection

Prior to its closure, Jane Orrell was the executive director of Island Employment, which was located in Sydney. She is the spouse of former PC MLA Eddie Orrell. Houston denied the earlier decision to avoid a forensic audit was connected to his former colleague.

NSGEU president Jason MacLean, whose union represented many of the employees at the agency, has repeatedly urged the province to conduct a forensic audit of Island Employment.

MacLean maintains the audit would clear his members of wrongdoing and get to the bottom of what transpired at the organization.

But deputy labour minister Ava Czapalay told the committee Wednesday it was difficult for the ombudsman to get documents needed for his investigation and that she believed a forensic audit would yield similar results, if not worse.

"We believe that the records would be even more incomplete right now because the people responsible for the misuse of public funds have had full knowledge of Mr. Smith's work since, I'm going to say since his interim report was published in December 2020," said Czapalay.

Testimony 'enlightening and informative'

Adair, the auditor general, told the committee it was up to them to decide how to proceed on the NDP motion asking her to audit Island Employment. But she said she had been listening to the testimony, and had found it "enlightening and informative" and she had not been aware of the details.

Before the vote, Young asked for a three-minute recess to consider the motion. But when the committee reconvened and the vote was called, the Shelburne MLA and his colleague voted against it.

In his subsequent letter to fellow members of the all-party committee, he said the PC caucus were in fact supportive of the motion.

"I am asking that you put this question to members," he wrote.

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